Relax. The book is not under any serious immediate threat. True, an increasingly urgent discussion around the future of books and publishing needs to take place, but not at the expense of maturity and reason. The topic of discussion? Some readers have shown a distinct preference for electronic texts, others stick with paper, and yet others are shifting between the two. This is an exciting development. Though readers, markets, and even genres are diversifying furiously, more than anything, people are reading. The worst thing any industry in such a situation could do is alienate its audience.
Unfortunately, I suspect this may be the unintentional result of John Pott's piece published at Meanjin's web site, available here online.
And if the newspaper is not long for this mediasphere, then the book must also be under threat. Why should the plant-matter codex survive, when its successor—environmentally friendly, convenient, opening to a vast digital immaterial library—is already here?
Putting aside the assumption that where newspapers go, so must books (aren't books much older than newspapers?), you would be forgiven for wondering where the author is coming from. Is he being serious or smarmy?
What accounts for the zeal of this contemporary narrative, in which the book is so disrespectfully hurried to its own doomsday? Much of this enthusiasm emanates from corporate PR and the blogs of amateur IT cheerleaders: it is the language of boosterism, which celebrates only the path that leads to the new and away from the old.
Right. It's smarmy, then. Grab a generalisation and start sweeping.
Hi-fi is another casualty: nobody, apart from a few old-timers, cares much about audio quality. The digital audio file is inferior in sound quality to the CD, which was inferior to the vinyl record. Music is heard through cheap ‘lossy’ ear buds that reduce even further the listening experience; we have taken great steps backwards in acoustic quality.
Woah, steady on there. Digital sound recording artificially cuts the top and bottom end of sound outside the range of human hearing. This is commonly cited as a difference in the feel of of the recording, rather than anything you can actually hear. On the flip side, digital technologies eliminate the surface noise of their analogue counterpart (vinyl records). For most people, this is a fair trade off. The difference is there, but if this really was a 'great step backwards' in sound quality, digital recording would never have taken off in the first place. To characterise the music industry's move to digital as a wholesale exercise in cheating listeners of sound quality doesn't just miss the point, but, I suspect, actively misrepresents it. And how does this apply to publishing? Does 'sound quality' equate to 'editorial quality'?
Be warned when grand statements about recent developments in music are applied automatically to publishing. Sure the recording industry is in all kinds of trouble, but 'publishing' and 'recording' are very different places. There are plenty of similarities (and lessons to be learned) from both music and film, but predicting the path of digital publishing using some other industry as a template is lazy.
For one thing, it conveniently forgets the fact that book publishing has been earmarked for catastrophe since home cassette taping was the scourge of CD sales. In fact some recent digging has found the books were being dismissed with the advent of the gramophone (more of that in later posts).
Despite its frequent demise, publishing has taken a resolutely different path to other recently digitised industries. CD-to-mp3 is not the same shift as book-to-ebook. This is not a VHS versus Beta winner-takes-all format war. Sure, Jeff Bezos is predicting the end of the book (or something), but then he would, wouldn't he?* Reality is much more complicated than regurgitated PR.
Book sales are falling and ebook sales are rising, but the two are not as closely related as one might assume. This article ignores the larger complexities at play in favour of an overly simplified demonisation of some new-fangled thingo.
Incidentally, the fact that a typo crept into the article (the unfortunate 'hind quarters' of copyright) tends to undermine its academic authority. What was that about sound quality versus editorial quality?
It's nice to know some people are fired up because of a deep and abiding love for their books, but a passionate defense of the printed word on a page adds nothing to the discussion. It merely perpetuates the myth that the book is under threat.
* Actually, Steve Jobs came closer when he declared 'people don't read any more'. This was in 2008, before Apple released the iPad and the iBookstore, and in the context of badmouthing the Kindle.
“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”